Supreme Court rules in favor of Obamacare

By a 6-3 vote issued today in the case of King v. Burwell, the US Supreme Court upheld the subsidies for health insurance provided by the federal exchanges in those states that decided to not set up state exchanges. This will come as a huge relief to the Obama administration’s signature legislation. But more importantly, it will enable about 10 million people to continue to get affordable health care coverage.

You can read the full opinion here. In writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor) applied the kind of common sense position that supporters of the law had made, that in the case of ambiguity, the intent of the legislation took precedence.

When analyzing an agency’s interpretation of a statute, we often apply the two-step framework announced in Chevron, 467 U. S. 837. Under that framework, we ask whether the statute is ambiguous and, if so, whether the agency’s interpretation is reasonable.

The tax credits are among the Act’s key reforms, involving billions of dollars in spending each year and affecting the price of health insurance for millions of people. Whether those credits are available on Federal Exchanges is thus a question of deep “economic and political significance” that is central to this statutory scheme; had Congress wished to assign that question to an agency, it surely would have done so expressly.

It is instead our task to determine the correct reading of Section 36B. If the statutory language is plain, we must enforce it according to its terms. But oftentimes the “meaning—or ambiguity—of certain words or phrases may only become evident when placed in context.” So when deciding whether the language is plain, we must read the words “in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”

After analyzing the context and the various places in which the exchanges were mentioned, he argues that treating the federal and state exchanges as fundamentally different for the purposes of subsidies would be inconsistent. He also found convincing the argument that denying the federal subsidies would create chaos in the private health insurance markets.

Given that the text is ambiguous, we must turn to the broader structure of the Act to determine the meaning of Section 36B. “A provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme . . . because only one of the permissible meanings produces a substantive effect that is compatible with the rest of the law.”

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter. Section 36B can fairly be read consistent with what we see as Congress’s plan, and that is the reading we adopt.

The vote may be secretly welcomed by the Republican party leadership in Congress and by governors in Republican-dominated states that had loudly opposed Obamacare and later realized that eliminating the federal subsidies might result in a major backlash, since most of the people who would lose coverage are in Republican states. But this decision, and the fact that it was by an even larger majority than the earlier Obamacare ruling, will be a bitter blow to Tea Partiers, Fox News, and many Republicans who had seemed confident that they would win.

What form the reaction of these groups will take will be interesting to see. They are not known for their restraint and we may even hear calls for chief justice Roberts to be impeached. Recall that many on the right already considered him to be a traitor when he was the deciding vote in the previous 5-4 ruling in favor of Obamacare. Republican presidential candidates will be obliged to express outrage and call for legislative repeal in order to appease their base.


  1. Who Cares says

    What I find interesting is that Kennedy voted in favor of the government as well.
    From what I read Roberts would likely vote in favor due to how he bend over backwards in the earlier ACA case.
    Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan would vote in favor due to their leanings.
    So that leaves Kennedy as the odd one out. Although he could have voted like that due to the consequences it would have for states and him being a federalist.

    And then there is this funny link to fox news (you’ve been warned) from 3 days ago. They predicted a win for the anti-ACA side and that Obama is not just expecting a loss but deliberately got a law passed so bad that it had to taken down by the supreme court. All so he could blame the republicans for harming the normal people.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for that link. It is absurd the levels of convoluted logic that people will resort to. The idea that from the get-go the Obama administration thought of designing a law that would pass Congress and be overturned by the Supreme Court is not only bizarre but gives far too much credit for strategic genius to the administration.

  3. Chiroptera says

    …Chief Justice Roberts (joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer, and Sotomayor)….

    Ha! When I saw 6-3 in a headline earlier, before reading the article, I knew the dissenters were Scalia, Thomas, and Scalia.

    I think I’m getting a feel for the Roberts court. Alito is turning out to be the partisan hack I thought he would be; on the other hand, Roberts is turning out to be more flexible than I had given him credit for.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    Article at ABC

    Justice Antonin Scalia wrote an angry dissent, saying the Supreme Court’s pair of decisions over Obamacare will “surely be remembered through the years” as evidence the court does “whatever [it] takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”

    He’s the poster boy for projection.

  5. expatriarchy says

    …gives far too much credit for strategic genius to the administration.

    Here’s some convoluted logic: The oligarchs are always playing a much longer game. I would be utterly unsurprised if Roberts had been warned to make sure the ACA stayed put. This ruling removes one easy path for a Democratic presidential win next year, and from picking up some Congressional coattail seats as well. Also, too, the Republicans can claim they tried, they really tried. They set up this easy loss and will profit from it with their gerrymandered base.

    The strategy is all on the takers’ side. I only wish progressives could think more than two steps ahead.

  6. Holms says

    It still seems preposterous in a way, that a huge body of legislation, passed legally and with clear intent as to its purpose, could have been thrown out in multiple states due to the wording of one paragraph being inconsistent with the rest of the huge body of text. Worse, one third of the justices actually accepted that flimsy case.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Talking Points Memo has a nice little collection of wingnut backlash:

    …an out-of-control act of judicial tyranny… a disgrace … The judiciary, John Roberts included, is now just the water boy for the welfare state. … tortured legal gymnastics … socialist takeover of health care forced down the throats of the American people…

    No sign of “impeachment” talk yet, even at Raw Story or Right Wing Watch.

  8. Robert B. says

    I live in New Jersey, so I got to hear coverage of Chris Christie’s reaction on the radio. It made me yell at my dashboard. He was talking about how the court was ignoring the clear literal meaning of the text, which does in fact talk about states running insurance exchanges. But he’s the frigging governor. If he wanted the law to work like the person who wrote that passage was imagining, he could have started a state exchange. But he didn’t do that, because he (like a bunch of other state-level elected officials) was trying to sabotage the law. To then turn around and say that the law’s not working quite like it was portrayed in the original text because it had to compensate for his own efforts to break it, and therefore the court should finish what he tried to start, is a deeply infuriating line of argument.

    And by the way, Christie’s leaked that he’s going to announce he’s running for president in a few days.

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